From Affluence to Anxiety

As in economics, biology posits discrete individual actors, i.e. Genes, behaving to maximize their self-interest, the means to survive and reproduce. Our very understanding of biology, i.e. of life, and in particular of progress in biology, i.e. of evolution, rests on a foundation of competition for survival. It is no wonder that we see human life and human progress in the same terms. The anxiety that defines so much of modern life is built into our conception of what it is to be alive and what it is to be human.

The view of life as a struggle for survival is woven into our world-view on a much deeper level than Darwinism. In fact, our guiding scientific paradigms can admit no alternative. Competition is implicit in our culture’s very conception of the self as an independent entity, distinct and separate from the environment and from other beings. This conception reached its fully developed form with Descartes, who identified the self as a discrete point of conscious awareness, a non-material soul separate from material reality, and with Francis Bacon, who enunciated the ideal of objectivity in science and the independence of the observer from factual reality. The foundations of science entail separation. When the definition of the self (and more generally, of an organism) is exclusive and discrete, any interdependency is therefore contingent on circumstances and can in principle be eliminated. This is known as “independence” or “security”—not to depend on others. Beings are naturally set in competition with one another, because more for me is less for you.

Anxiety and boredom flow from a common confluence of sources. Technology has separated us from each other, from nature, and from ourselves, inflicting the interior wound of separation. Secondly, the definition of the self as a discrete entity, fundamentally separate from other beings and the environment, contributes to our psychological loneliness. Thirdly, the competitive view of the world that is inseparable from the edifice of science weaves anxiety into the very fabric of life, which becomes a competition for survival. Finally, the belief that the universe at its most fundamental level consists of atomic particles interacting according to impersonal forces creates an existential insecurity, an alienation from the living, enspirited world and selves we intuitively sense.

Our society is based upon competition and anxiety in part because these are implicit in our basic understanding of the universe. To forge a new psychology—and, collectively, a new society—that is not underpinned by anxiety, will therefore require a new conception of self and life, and therefore of science and the universe. Other societies, fast disappearing under the deluge of Western culture, were remarkably free from the ambient anxiety we know today. It is no coincidence that their social systems were based on cooperation and that their self-definitions were not atomistic like ours are, but relativistic: defined in relationship to a greater whole such as family, village, forest, nature.

Labeling the World

The destructive potential of language is contained within the very nature of representation. Words, particularly nouns, force an infinity of unique objects and processes into a finite number of categories. Words deny the uniqueness of each moment and each experience, reducing it to a “this” or a “that”. They grant us the power to manipulate and control (with logic) the things they refer to, but at the price of immediacy. Something is lost, the essence of a thing. By generalizing particulars into categories, words render invisible the differences among them. By labeling both A and B a tree, and conditioning ourselves to that label, we become blind to the differences between A and B. The label affects our perception of reality and the way we interact with it.

Occasionally one may be fortunate enough to catch a momentary glimpse of perception unmediated by language and other representational systems. The world vibrates with an unspeakable richness of sound and color. As soon as we try to explain, interpret, or exploit that state, we distance ourselves from immediate reality and the experience vanishes. Habitually interpreting the world second-hand through symbolic representations keeps us distanced from the glory of reality all the time.

The realization that language can distance us from reality goes back thousands of years, at least to the time of Lao-tze, who opened the Tao Te Ching with the words, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao; the name that can be named is not the true name.” The very first line of one of the world’s greatest classics of spiritual scripture is a disclaimer, an admonition about the insufficiency of language to represent truth.

The fallacy of objective meaning is widely recognized, from Lao Tze to the post-modern deconstructionists; Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear.” Only recently, however, has this fallacy begun to enter the general consciousness, resulting in a generalized breakdown in linguistic meaning. Increasingly, words don’t mean anything anymore. In politics, campaigning candidates can increasingly get away with saying words that flatly contradict their actions and policies, and no one seems to object or even care. It is not the routine dissembling of political figures that is striking, but rather our nearly complete indifference to it. We are as well almost completely inured to the vacuity of advertising copy, the words of which increasingly mean nothing at all to the reader. From brand names to PR slogans to political codewords, the language of the media that inundates modern life consists almost wholly of subtle lies, misdirection, and manipulation. No wonder we thirst so much for “authenticity”.

Like all our other technologies, language is not working so well any more. It has failed to live up to the promise, echoed in the Technological Program to control nature, of providing a fully rational, objective, logical system of representation, the rigorous use of which will bring us to accurate knowledge of reality. Just as any technological fix always neglects some variable that generates unexpected outcomes and new problems, so also is any language, any system of signs, a distortion of reality riddled with blind spots that unavoidably generates error and misunderstanding. The attempt to control the world is futile. For too long now, we have sought to remedy the consequences of failed control by imposing even more control, more technological solutions; in language this equates to more rigor, more definitions, more names, an ever-finer categorization of reality. In our era, we are finally witnessing the collapse of the technological program of language.

Images of Images

A small but for some people significant way to reduce the alienation of modern life is to put down the camera and participate fully in the moment, rather than trying, futilely, to preserve the moment on film. The compulsion to record everything bespeaks the underlying anxiety of modern life, the conviction, stemming from measured time, that our lives are slipping away from us day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Perhaps if I photograph them, those precious moments of my children’s childhood will always be there, preserved for eternity. I have noticed, though, that when I look at my sons’ baby pictures my main emotion is wistfulness, a regret that I did not truly and fully appreciate those precious, unique times. I can seldom look at my most treasured photographs without feeling sadness and regret. The very effort to possess and preserve those moments diminishes them, just as technology in general leaves us alienated from and more afraid of the very world it attempts to control.

It is much better to enjoy each beautiful moment in the serene knowledge that an infinity of equally yet differently beautiful moments await. At the same time, the awareness of each moment’s transience helps us appreciate it all the more, if only we don’t succumb to the illusion, offered for example by photography, that it can be made permanent. That illusion robs life of its urgency and intensity, substituting for it an insipid complacency that conceals our buried unmet hunger for real experience. And that unmet hunger, in turn, fuels an endless appetite for the vicarious imitation experiences to be found in television, movies, amusement parks, spectator sports, and—the last gasp—reality TV.

Buddhism (and, I could argue, the esoteric teachings of all religions) recognizes the suffering implicit in the attempt to make permanent that which is intrinsically impermanent. The beautiful sand paintings made by Tibetan monks and Navajo Indians, which by the nature of their medium last a very short time (even when they aren’t purposefully destroyed the next day), demonstrate an important principle: the value of beauty does not depend on its preservation. The modern mind tends to think of their creation as a waste of time—creating something beautiful only to destroy it again—and wants to preserve it in a museum, derive some “benefit” from it. This way of thinking, in which we mortgage the present moment to future moments, is precisely the mentality of agriculture, in which we must sow in order to reap, in which the future motivates and justifies the labor of the present. When we photograph, record, and archive the present, we are driven by the same anxiety as the agriculturalist who knows that unless he stores up grain now, there will be scarcity in the future. Just as the agriculturalist no longer trusts (as hunter-gatherers do) in Providence, the easy bounty of nature, so also are we compelled to save up beautiful moments as if their supply were limited.

Further perfections of the image only reinforced the disappointment. Photography, then motion pictures, then holography, similarly failed to produce magical results; that is, actual control of reality via control over its representation. Yet, unwilling to admit defeat, we press on with “virtual reality,” a fitting metaphor for the dead end to which our separation of self has brought us. The separate human realm that originated with the circle of the campfire is nearly complete now—a wholly artificial reality. We have arrived, only to find ourselves feeling more lost than ever before.

Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity
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